The Egyptian revolution: phase two

By Jesse McLaren

June 27, 2011 -- -- My previous article looked at the first phase of the Egyptian revolution, and the struggles that led up to it, which has won significant political reforms -- from the removal of Mubarak, to the promise of free and fair elections, to the partial opening of the Rafah border, to partial freedom of speech and assembly. But basic political reforms are not complete, and the social and economic demands tied to them have not been met. This is phase two of the Egyptian revolution.

Despite the removal of Mubarak, his regime is still intact: the emergency laws and military trials of civilians are still in effect; police cracked down on demonstrators on Nakba Day and beat a bus driver to death in June; the regime arrested journalist Rasha Azab and interrogated journalist and activist Hossam el-Hamalawy; the regime censored murals commemorating martyrs and arrested the street artist Ganzeer (for his poster that says, "New! The Freedom Mask! Greetings from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to dear Egyptians. Now available for an unlimited time").

Like the decade of struggle leading up the revolution, these political questions are part and parcel of social and economic demands. Workers are demanding a minimum wage of 1200 Egyptian pounds ($200). Women demonstrated in Tahrir on International Women's Day for government-funded child care, an end to discrimination in hiring and promotions, and an end to sexual harassment and violence against women. Peasants have began reclaiming the land. This week families of martyrs demanding justice joined a sit-in by homeless people demanding housing.

But these demands challenge the military regime and the corporations that support it, which persists despite Mubarak's overthrow. As a striking doctor said, "Every percentage point for increasing health care will come from the budget of the Ministry of Interior and other parts of the oppressive machine." The same economic crisis that contributed to the revolution is driving a deeper wedge between political reforms gained and the social and economic demands that have yet to be met. The stock market even panicked at a raise in the minimum wage to 700 pounds.


The Arab Spring is a huge threat to Western imperialism in the region, and the counter-revolution is taking a variety of forms: direct military intervention in Libya, indirect intervention through Saudi Arabia in Bahrain, and a combination of weapons sales and "financial aid" in Egypt, and the government was just forced to reject the loan -- citing the "pressure of public opinion". But with the Eurozone in crisis, the funds are relatively small for such a large and strategic country as Egypt. Meanwhile, the internal counter-revolution in Egypt is based on a combination of co-opting and attacking the revolution.

While corporations and the regime are claiming the mantle of the revolution -- on murals and posters -- they are attacking the strength and unity on which the revolution depends. One of the first acts of the military regime after the fall of Mubarak was to ban strikes that helped drive him from power, and since then it has broken up sit-ins and harassed union activists in education and transportation. It has also overseen attacks on the International Women's Day March -- including subjecting women to virginity tests -- and the burning of a Coptic church.

The regime has accused striking doctors -- who earn less than $3 a day of being traitors to the revolution, while the state-controlled trade unions have accused the independent trade unions of being "counter-revolutionary among the workers". Just as Stalin's counter-revolution used the language of socialism, so the military regime in Egypt is using the language of revolution in an attempt to undermine the movement for change. The leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood is complicit with the military regime in its quest for power, using religious language to call off demonstrations. But many of its membership, particularly the youth, were radicalised by the revolution and continue to demonstrate.


In this context workers' struggles are key to counter divisions and push the revolution forward. As Hossam El-Hamalawy wrote last month in The Guardian:

Many are disappointed with Egypt's progress -- me less so because I never had high expectations from an army takeover. But two things have changed in Egypt in the past 100 days which give me hope, and both relate to the fact that the revolution is unfinished. The first is that mass strikes are continuing. The second is that workers have taken the step of establishing independent trade unions, which I believe are the silver bullet for any dictatorship.

Attempts are already under way by middle-class activists to place limits on this revolution and ensure it remains only within the realm of formal political institutions. But the main part of any revolution has to be socio-economic emancipation for the citizens of a country. So this is phase two of the revolution, the phase of socio-economic change. What we need to do now is take Tahrir to the factories, the universities, the workplaces. In every single institution in this country there is a mini-Mubarak who needs to be overthrown. In every institution there are figures from the old state security regime who need to be overthrown.

In neighbourhoods, the Popular Committees to Defend the Revolution have continued to advocate for better services and to remove corrupt officials. In workplaces, more than 150 independent trade unions have formed since the fall of Mubarak -- from textile and aluminum workers, to postal and hospital workers, and even workers who issue marriage licences. In March, doctors organised national strikes demanding better wages for all workers, the removal of corrupt officials and an increase in the health budget from 3 to 15 per cent of GDP. On March 25 an independent union uniting all hospital workers was launched in Cairo, and three days later the hospital director resigned. In April, postal workers from across Egypt met to organise an independent union. According to Adil Hisham, a postal worker:

Alongside supporting workers' demands, we'll be working on setting up our independent union as quickly as possible. … Now is the time for workers in Egypt to set up independent organizations to defend themselves from the bosses' attacks, and to unite their demands in the wake of the victory of the revolution which opened the door to all workers to get organized and speak with one voice.

On May Day, the Egyptian Federation of Independent Unions mobilised the first national public demonstration for workers in more than 60 years, and a Democratic Workers Party was launched to represent workers' demands -- raising the minimum wage to LE1200, removing corrupt managers, re-nationalisation of privatised industries and ending Egypt's ties with Israel.

In the first week of June there were strikes or protests by flight attendants, petro workers, subway workers and parliament workers, while a pharmacists' union was formed. Meanwhile, protesters marked the anniversary of the death of Khaled Said by chanting outside the Interior Ministry and spraypainting his face all over the notorious building -- while vans full of riot police watched passively. For the past two weeks Suez Canal workers have been on strike. This week hundreds of British trade unionists sent a solidarity message, demanding the Egyptian regime respect the right to strike and protest, and that the British government stop selling weapons used to suppress strikes and protests.

Arab Spring, world spring

Shortly after the fall of Mubarak workers in Wisconsin, USA, occupied the capitol building, inspired by the Egyptian revolution and received solidarity messages from Egypt. Then Tahrir arrived in Madrid as tens of thousands occupied the main square against austerity. In Canada, parliamentary page Brigette DePape interrupted the throne speech calling for an Arab Spring in Canada.

Though our conditions are different, we too have been inspired by Palestinian resistance and mobilised against the Iraq War; we too are mobilising against police indifference and injustice, from the missing and murdered aboriginal women to the mass arrests at the G20; we too have lived through a generation of neoliberal policies, and are facing an austerity agenda; we too are facing attacks on our trade unions, but are starting to fight back.

That's why we need to learn more from the Egyptian revolution. As an Egyptian activist said recently, "If you're inspired by our Arab revolutions, do as we did. You need one, I know you need one. And we need you to do one. It's not just an Arab Spring, it's a world spring."

[Jesse McLaren is a physician, activist and blogger, who believes that if medicine is to accomplish its great task, it must intervene in political and social life. He blogs at and tweets @HeartsOnTheLeft.]